Cover Crops & No-Till are a Net Benefit for Foster Brothers Farm

A Newsletter Spotlight, From Summer 2020 Newsletter

By Kirsten Workman

View the Newsletter in Full Here

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George Foster and son Jeremy manage crop production on the Foster family’s fifth generation 2,200-acre dairy farm in Addison County, Vermont. They grow 550 acres of corn silage, 300 acres of soybeans, 100 acres of small grains, and 1,250 acres hay/haylage each year on their farm, which is predominated by Vergennes heavy clay soils. The family not only sells milk through the Agri-Mark Family Dairy Farms® cooperative where it is made into world-famous cheese, but they also operate Vermont Natural Ag Products—home of the Moo™ line of compost and soil amendment products.

Today George has become a humble, yet impactful leader of a soil health movement in Vermont. While the farm has always had a conservation ethic, George and Jeremy have dramatically changed their cropping systems over the last eight years. After some failed attempts at no-till 20 years ago, George attended the UVM Extension No-Till and Cover Crop Symposium and that was when he knew he could make it work on their farm. He had a solid vision and took a pragmatic approach to implantation of these practices.

The Fosters agreed to help us investigate on the economic plusses and minuses of cover cropping and no-till through a state Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG).

Making the Transition

After acquiring a new no-till corn planter in 2012, the Fosters began transitions by applying no-till on their lighter soils utilized for corn silage, and then fields going into first-year corn silage on their clay fields, while simultaneously adding cover cropping. Paying good attention to nitrogen management was key to maintaining and increasing yields. Adjusting equipment was important, and they now have a roller-crimper and no-till drill in addition to the no-till corn planter. All of their crops and cover crops are now no-till and they grow their own cover crop seed!

Why Cover Crops?

When you ask George why he grows cover crops, he’ll tell you, “It’s what makes no-till work!”He’s sure it’s the reason no-till didn’t work 20 years ago when they first tried it. He explains that the cover crop roots open the soil while the leaves protect the soil surface. He has observed many of the benefits we often espouse like improved water infiltration/management, increased organic matter, increased soil biology, improved soil structure, reduced compaction, and resilient crops leading to more reliable yields which are less stressed by weather extremes.

Cost of Entry

Cost of entry of conservation practices is a common challenge and concern for producers. To manage these costs, spacing out investments, borrowing equipment, hiring custom work, cost sharing and grant funding are all ways producers manage these investments. Foster Brothers Farm utilized all these approaches. Out-of-pocket expenses made up roughly 53% of the equipment cost. Divided over their corn acres, the equipment was paid for in 5 years. Including soybeans and small grains, it only took 3 years to see a return on investment.

Changes in Costs Associated with Cover Crops and No-Till

In this project we calculated economic cost estimates (not actual cash expenses), with producer interviews and the NRCS Machinery Cost estimator (Cover Crop Economics Tool, version 3.1). Foster Brothers Farm saw an increase in costs related to planting the cover crop and use of a roller crimper for termination of cover crop. Cost decreases were seen in labor, plowing and harrowing (see graph). The net effect of these changes is approximately a $45 / acre decrease in cost as compared to conventional tillage on this farm.

Compared to their previous tillage system, this method requires less labor, leads to better crop quality, reduces/eliminates replanting costs, increases yields, and provides more resiliency to wet springs and dry summers. Their corn yields have been steadily increasing and their soybean fields saw a substantial increase. More efficient spring operations and changes in new hay seedings improved earnings.

George is still tweaking the cover crop system with his soybeans, and he is mindful that avoiding compaction is more important than ever. He reminds farmers who are trying no-till to be patient in the spring and check underneath the surface before planting.

Spring Newsletter is Here!

View the Newsletter Here (pdf link)

In This Issue:

  • Focus on Agriculture, by Jeff Carter
  • News, Events & Info You Should Know
  • Opportunities for Grazing Funding, by Cheryl Cesario
  • Grassland Manure Injection: By The Numbers, by Kirsten Workman
  • Two Bedrock Professors Retiring: Will Be Missed in Jeffords Hall and Beyond
  • End of Gypsum Project Leaves us with Important Lessons and Questions, by Kristin Williams
  • USDA Authorized Flexibilities Help Producers During the Coronavirus Pandemic, by Jake Jacobs
  • Notes on the Wild Side, by Jeff Carter

Newsletter Highlight From Grassland Manure Injection: By The Numbers (pg. 4)    With funding from VAAFM’s Clean Water Fund and the help of Ken and Debbie Hicks at Hicks Equipment, we purchased the right equipment from the Netherlands. With the expertise of Eric Severy of Matthew’s Trucking to operate it, we began demonstrating the utility of this system. Shallow slot grassland manure injection gets liquid dairy manure just two inches below the soil where it is protected from runoff during rain events while still well within the root zone where the plants will use it. Read More

Save the Date: 2021 No-Till Cover Crop Symposium March 4-5, 2021. More information coming soon.   We’re joining forces with the Northeast Cover Crop Council to bring you a full day and a half of information related to no-till and cover cropping. go.uvm.edu/ntccs    If you missed this year’s symposium you can also read presentation pdfs and the proceedings online.

Financial Assistance Through USDA Now Available!

The CARES act authorized payments through USDA for covid-19 related income losses, this is called Coronavirus Food Assistance Program or CFAP. Don’t be confused by the name – this includes financial payments to farmers for losses incurred due to the pandemic outbreak.

CFAP assistance applications are administered through your local Farm Service Agnency (FSA) office and applications are being accepted March 26, 2020 through August 28, 2020.

Information on all these rules and qualifications can be found at https://www.farmers.gov/cfap. The website includes a payment calculator and printable forms (scroll down the page to see all forms required).

Application eligibility requirements include:

  • Specified agricultural commodities that have suffered at least a 5 percent or greater price decline (dairy, beef, forage crops all qualify, mid-January to Mid-April timeline) OR or who had losses due to market supply chain disruptions and face additional costs.
  • Average adjusted gross income <$90,000 or derive at least 75% of income from farming.
  • Be in compliance with other USDA rules such as Highly Erodable Land regulations.

Application Submission:

You must apply through your local FSA office by mail, fax, hand delivery or electronic means, however offices are only open for phone appointments at this time. You should contact your local office before submitting your application. Reach your local FSA office for questions. In Middlebury, you can call 802-388-6748 and fax 802-497-3679.

Factsheets by Category:

Dairy CFAP calculations are being split into two categories: CARES Act payment which will compensate producers for price losses during the first quarter of 2020 and CCC Funds payment which will compensate for marketing channel and demand disruptions for the second quarter of 2020 (April, May, and June) due to COVID-19.

If you need assistance with HEL compliance or have other agronomy related questions that we can help with, call our office at 802-388-4969 and leave us a message.

Financial Help For Farmers in the Face of Covid-19

*This is an evolving situation and will be updated

PPP Loans: Paycheck Protection Loans are obtained through a lender (Yankee Farm Credit, VEDA, your bank, etc) that reimburses for payroll and other expenses spent over an 8 week period as long as employees are hired back or retained. You can use the money for employee salaries, paid sick or medical leave, insurance premiums, and mortgage, rent, and utility payments.

EIDL/EIDG: The latest act allows farmers to qualify for this program. The EIDL program is a loan program directly through SBA which can be used to cover a wide variety of expenses. It provides a grant (the EEIG) up to $10,000 ($1,000 per employee up to 10) whether the applicant takes the loan or not. Note, there has been a major backlog in applications and most Vermont businesses have not yet heard back from SBA after applying. Hopefully that will be resolved soon.

SBA news release as of 5/4/20 SBA has re-opened portal for applications! If you were unable apply before you should be able to apply now.

PUA: Pandemic Unemployment Insurance is available for self-employed individuals including farmers. Self-employed farmers are eligible to apply for PUA if you have had some level of lost income. Many farmers may be eligible, and if so, you’d receive a minimum of $790 per week and a maximum of $1,113 per week.

USDA funds: U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). This new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program will take several actions to assist farmers, ranchers, and consumers in response to the COVID-19 national emergency. See the press release. The plan will provide $16 billion in direct payments to farmers and $3 billion in food product purchases for distribution through the emergency food system. Details will still need to be rolled out but we expect dairy producers will receive $2.9 billion in direct payments, and $2.1 billion will go to specialty crop producers. The payments are based on milk production and calculated through a formula. They have not announced a specific timeline, but there is indications that sign-ups will be through FSA, and payments may be as early as late May. See this Hoard’s Dairyman article on some more thoughts.

New link – Webinar on CFAP, Thursday, May 14, 2020, at 1 p.m. ET.

Do you need help navigating all of this? UVM Extension Ag Business / Farm Viability can help.

Do you have questions for our office? Give us a call at 802-388-4969 and we will get back to you.

Financial Opportunities for Farmers and other Reminders

Funding for Farm Equipment

The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (VAAFM) has just announced that funding is available for farmers in the Capital Equipment Assistance Program (CEAP). Financial assistance is available for new or used innovative equipment that will aid in the reduction of surface runoff of agricultural wastes into State waters, improve water quality of State waters, reduce odors from manure application, separate phosphorus from manure, decrease greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce costs to farmers.   You can learn more about the program on VAAFM website or by printing the CEAP Program Factsheet.

All CEAP Applications DUE (or postmarked by), November 1, 2019.

If you have questions about applying for CEAP funds you can contact VAAFM 802-622-4098. If you have questions about applying for CEAP funds you can also give our office a call at 802-388-4969.

Reminder – Current Use Deadline

Annual certification of agricultural land and farm buildings is upcoming. All owners of agricultural land and/or farm buildings that are also enrolled in the Current Use Program, must annually certify that their agricultural land and farm buildings meet the requirements of enrollment and continue to be eligible for the program.

You should have received an Agricultural Certification form in the mail in late September and the certification submission deadline is November 1, 2019.

You may certify online. Instructions should have been included in your mailings. Additional information about certification is online.
If landowners are not sure whether or not they need to submit a certification, scroll down the webpage listed above to the “Find My Span” box. If you have questions, call the Current Use Program at (802) 828-5860.

Working Lands Program

The Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (VAAFM) has just announced that funding is available for farmers through the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative (WLEB). You can learn more about the program online.

Pre-application period begins October 8, 2019 and is due November 3, 2019. Invited full applications are due January 26, 2020.

*Dairy-Focused Funds: For this grant round, Working Lands has $500,000 to specifically target projects from dairy farm applicants. This funding will be allocated across business grant categories, and projects from $5,000 – $150,000 are eligible.

The WLEB has interpreted this legislative mandate by outlining eligible activity areas, details of which can be found on the website, but include diversification, value-added and innovative solutions to soil health and water quality. Contact Working Lands staff with questions at (802) 622-4477. If you have questions about applying for WLEB funds you can also give our office a call at 802-388-4969. 

Water Quality Grants for Farmers

This opportunity is funded through the state and offered from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB). The Viability Program provides grants of up to $40,000 to help Vermont farmers invest in water quality-related on-farm infrastructure. Any Vermont farm with a gross farm income of $15,000 or more that is required to comply with Vermont’s Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs) is eligible to apply. For more information about the program visit their website.

All Applications DUE November 8, 2019 (the next round will be February 7, 2020).

If you have questions about applying for a VHCB Water Quality Grant call VHCB at 802-828-5587. If you have questions about applying for VHCB funds you can also give our office a call at 802-388-4969.